How the Miniseries Went from Inside Joke to Pop Culture Staple

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How the Miniseries Went from Inside Joke to Pop Culture Staple

At the 2019 Emmys, Bill Hader and Phoebe Waller-Bridge presented the award for Best Supporting Actor in a Limited Series. In their introduction, Hader described a limited series as “a TV show that’s been cancelled.” It’s a funny joke, but even in 2019 it didn’t pack the punch it once would have. The limited series, once known as a miniseries, is not on the fringe of TV anymore—it’s taking center stage.

During the 2021 Emmys, the Best Limited Series category held all the shows we spent the last year watching: WandaVision, Mare of Easttown, and The Queen’s Gambit were some of the biggest conversation pieces, while I May Destroy You and The Underground Railroad were two of the most impressive series made in the past decade, receiving near-unanimous praise. While there were still popular series in the comedy and drama categories, limited series was the one with the most competition. In a rare reordering of categories, Best Limited or Anthology Series was announced last rather than Best Drama. The Emmys knew which race people really wanted to see.

So how did the miniseries, once the field for intense HBO historical dramas and refined British productions (and farther back, occasional network TV event spectacles or corny micro-soaps), become the most popular medium in television?

The root of the change, like much of the current media landscape, is Ryan Murphy’s fault.

The miniseries was almost a dead medium. In 2009 and 2010, only two productions were even eligible for the Emmys. While partly the fault of the writer’s strike, it signaled the fact that 22-episode seasons were king. The category of Best Miniseries had to merge with Best TV Movie to save the field. That was until 2011, when Murphy’s American Horror Story first aired on FX. The series was a breakout hit and signaled that the miniseries could have untapped potential. After only two years, the 2014 Emmys separated the categories once again due to an influx of new eligible series, including future mainstay Fargo (also on FX).

But while 2014 signaled a change, Murphy’s biggest impact would not come until two years later. American Stories was not just one anthology series but a franchise. For the first time since airing, American Horror Story was not present in the Emmys categories. The field had become overwhelmed, led by the hit American Crime Story: the People vs. OJ Simpson. The series took the country by storm and became a cultural centerpiece. Murphy’s impact had solidified; the miniseries (now changed to the moniker “limited series” to distance it from its stodgy past) was here to stay.

The popularity of those series sent a message across entertainment that limited series could be not just viable but successful. Murphy also dismantled the idea of “prestige” that came around the genre. In the early 2000s, HBO dominated with shows like John Adams and Band of Brothers, alongside British exports on PBS. While the field continues to be dominated by serious dramas, audiences react to it differently today.

After Ryan Murphy broke the miniseries into the mainstream, HBO reclaimed their hold on the now “limited” series format with Big Little Lies and The Night Of. Both series followed the in-demand genre of crime stories that rose alongside the popularity of true crime. While Big Little Lies was the more popular of the two, both dominated the TV conversation. But each paled in comparison to breakout hit Chernobyl. The series was bolstered by being the first new HBO release after Game of Thrones, and ultimately one of the most popular series of 2019. It was a show that spread through word of mouth, and its short episode number was a great incentive to give it a try.

With anything that becomes popular, copies emerge. American Crime Story led to more true crime miniseries like Paramount’s Waco and Showtime’s Escape from Dannemora. American Horror Story led to more anthologies like Fargo and ABC’s American Crime. Big Little Lies broke out the “women’s secrets” genre, followed soon by HBO’s Sharp Objects and Hulu’s Little Fires Everywhere. But what’s remarkable is that the successors often rose above the popularity of their predecessors Little Fires Everywhere became the most-watched series to land on Hulu at the time, while Netflix’s Bodyguard has maintained popularity years after its debut.

Which brings us to the limited series space we’re in today. Shows like Watchmen (HBO), When They See Us (Netflix), and The Underground Railroad (Amazon Prime) illustrate how the miniseries’ legacy as a tool for serious exploration is still alive, but that audiences have grown tremendously. The mini (now limited) series can be a lighter affair as well, with shows like The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix) and WandaVision (Disney+) both dealing with serious themes without being considered crushingly dark. Even Mare of Easttown, which is serious to the point of being overbearingly depressing, became the source of entertaining “whodunnit” conversations during its run.

But the new popularity of limited series is already dipping into negative consequences. Producers have caught on that a limited series can create easy buzz and travel fast through word of mouth, causing some to push projects into the format without reason. While WandaVision fit the category nicely, Disney+’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier failed to capture the public in the same way, feeling more like a movie stretched to become a miniseries as a promotional effort for a future movie.

There is also the recent trend of limited series not being as limited as they claim to be. The popularity of Big Little Lies led HBO to make a second season that stretched beyond the source material—and it was not well received. Just recently The White Lotus, also marketed as a limited series, was given a Season 2 and turned into an anthology. Even the succinct Mare of Easttown is threatening a Season 2 after its Emmys wins. Producers want to both capitalize on the popularity of having a miniseries while reaping the benefits of a multi-season show with continuing social capital. The title of “limited series” leaves a door open if a show cuts through the Peak TV crowds and becomes extremely popular to expand into a normal series, but can also be used to remove the idea of failure if a show doesn’t make an impression. But this willingness to bend the definition undercuts one of the most attractive aspects of a limited series: the ability to watch and enjoy a full story without having to become invested in a show that may become incomplete through cancellation.

These two new trends will only serve to diminish the successes of limited series in the current era. Forcing shows to fit into the original miniseries parameters and then expanding beyond them without artistic reason will erode the favorable opinion and willingness to recommend that has given the miniseries such power. Recent limited series are so excellent because their creators found a way to use the serialized format of TV to tell a concise and compelling story. They have less risk than a multi-season show, and when executed with confidence can create some of the best television of the twenty-first century.

Ryan Murphy’s newest American Crime Story, ACS: Impeachment, has been the first to garner a mostly mixed reaction. The latest seasons of American Horror Story have a fraction of the social capital they once had, and now that they feature recurring characters from previous seasons, they are no longer classified as an anthology. The recent failures of the man whose constant success brought upon this era may serve as an omen that the trend was only a fad. But maybe the people who had doors opened because of him have risen above the precedent he set. Either we’ve reached the peak of miniseries domination, or this is only the beginning.



Leila Jordan is the TV intern for Paste Magazine. To talk about all things movies, TV, and useless trivia you can find her @galaxyleila.

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